A unit of analysis is the smallest level of analysis for a research project. It’s important to choose the right unit of analysis because it helps you make more accurate conclusions about your data.

What Is a Unit of Analysis?

A unit of analysis is the smallest element in a data set that can be used to identify and describe a phenomenon or the smallest unit that can be used to gather data about a subject. The unit of analysis will determine how you will define your variables, which are the things that you measure in your data. 

If you want to understand why people buy a particular product, you should choose a unit of analysis that focuses on buying behavior. This means choosing a unit of analysis that is relevant to your research topic and question.

For example, if you want to study the needs of soldiers in a war zone, you will need to choose an appropriate unit of analysis for this study: soldiers or the war zone. In this case, choosing the right unit of analysis would be important because it could help you decide if your research design is appropriate for this particular subject and situation.

Why is Choosing the Right Unit of Analysis Important?

The unit of analysis is important because it helps you understand what you are trying to find out about your subject, and it also helps you to make decisions about how to proceed with your research.

Choosing the right unit of analysis is also important because it determines what information you’re going to use in your research. If you have a small sample, then you’ll have to choose whether or not to focus on the entire population or just a subset of it. 

If you have a large sample, then you’ll be able to find out more about specific groups within your population. For example, if you want to understand why people buy certain types of products, then you should choose a unit of analysis that focuses on buying behavior. 

This means choosing a unit of analysis that is relevant to your research topic and question.

Unit of Analysis vs Unit of Observation

Unit of analysis is a term used to refer to a particular part of a data set that can be analyzed. For example, in the case of a survey, the unit of analysis is an individual: the person who was selected to take part in the survey. 

Unit of analysis is used in the social sciences to refer to the individuals or groups that have been studied. It can also be referred to as the unit of observation.

Unit of observation refers to a specific person or group in the study being observed by the researcher. An example would be a particular town, census tract, state, or other geographical location being studied by researchers conducting research on crime rates in that area.

Unit of analysis refers to the individual or group being studied by the researcher. An example would be an entire town being analyzed for crime rates over time.

Types of “Unit of Analysis”

The unit of analysis is a way to understand and study a phenomenon. There are four main types of unit of analysis: individuals, groups, artifacts (books, photos, newspapers), and geographical units (towns, census tracts, states).

  1. Individuals are the smallest level of analysis. For example, an individual may be a person or an animal. A group can be composed of individuals or a collection of people who interact with each other. For example, an individual might go to college with other individuals or a family might live together as roommates. 
  2. An artifact is anything that can be studied using empirical methods—including books and photos but also any physical object like knives or phones. 
  3. A geographical unit is smaller than an entire country but larger than just one city block or neighborhood; it may be smaller than just two houses but larger than just two houses in the same street. 
  4. Social interactions include dyadic relations (such as friendships or romantic relationships) and divorces among many other things such as arrests.

Examples of Each Type of Unit of Analysis

  1. Individuals are the smallest unit of analysis. An individual is a person, animal, or thing. For example, an individual can be a person or a building.
  2. Artifacts are the next largest units of analysis. An artifact is something produced by human beings and is not alive. For example, a child’s toy is an artifact. Artifacts can include any material object that was produced by human activity and which has meaning to someone. Artifacts can be tangible or intangible and may be produced intentionally or accidentally.
  3. Geographical units are large geographic areas such as states, counties, provinces, etc. Geographical units may also refer to specific locations within these areas such as cities or townships. 
  4. Social interaction refers to interactions between members of society (e.g., family members interacting with each other). Social interaction includes both formal interactions (such as attending school) and informal interactions (such as talking on the phone).

How Does a Social Scientist Choose a Unit of Analysis?

Social scientists choose a unit of analysis based on the purpose of their research, their research question, and the type of data they have. For example, if they are trying to understand the relationship between a person’s personality and their behavior, they would choose to study personality traits.

For example, if a researcher wanted to study the effects of legalizing marijuana on crime rates, they may choose to use administrative data from police departments. However, if they wanted to study how culture influences crime rates, they might use survey data from smaller groups of people who are further removed from the influence of culture (e.g., individuals living in different areas or countries).

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Unit of Analysis

The unit of analysis is the object or person that you are studying, and it determines what kind of data you are collecting and how you will analyze it.

Factors to consider when choosing a unit of analysis include:

  1. What is your purpose for studying this topic? Is it for a research paper or an article? If so, which type of paper do you want to write?
  2. What is the most appropriate unit for your study? If you are studying a specific event or period of time, this may be obvious. But if your focus is broader, such as all social sciences or all human development, then you need to determine how broad your scope should be before beginning any research process (see question one above) so that you know where to start in order for it to be effective (see question three below).
  3. How do other people define their units? This can be helpful when trying to understand what other people mean when they use certain terms like “social science” or “human development” because they may define those terms differently than what you would expect them to.
  4. The nature of the data collected. Is it quantitative or qualitative? If it’s qualitative, what kind of data is collected? How much time was spent observing each participant/examining their behavior?
  5. The scale used to measure variables. Is every variable measured on a one-to-one scale (like measurements between people)? Or do some variables only take on discrete values (like yes/no questions)?



The unit of analysis is the smallest part of a data set that you analyze. It’s important to remember that your data is made up of more than just one unit—you have lots of different units in your dataset, and each of those units has its own characteristics that you need to think about when you’re trying to analyze it.


  • Olayemi Jemimah Aransiola
  • on 6 min read


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